Muslim Scholars vs. ISIS

(Originally published at on October 3, 2014)

On Wednesday, September 24, 2014, “More than 120 Muslim scholars from around the world joined an open letter to the

‘fighters and followers’ of the Islamic State.” The signees represent the Sunni branch of Islam (with the exception of one Sufi person), and include important Muslim figures such as the former and current Grand Muftis of Egypt and the Muftis of Jerusalem, Bulgaria, Kosovo, and Malaysia. They live and teach on Islam in the Middle East, North, Central, and West Africa, Europe, North America, and the Far East. The letter relies heavily on the Qur’an and various “trustworthy” sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as classical Sunni writings and interpretations. It attempts to rebut the ideology of ISIS with cardinal Islamic texts that ISIS itself has cited.

This is a terrific initiative. The world has long waited for the Islamic community worldwide to react in such a clear way to the “Islamic State.” The letter is meticulously composed, and contains twenty-four sections in twenty-eight pages in Arabic (the English translation has seventeen pages). These sections attempt to refute the awful deeds and claims of ISIS—deeds including killing unarmed innocents, slaying prisoners of war, mutilating dead bodies, taking women as concubines, forcing non-Muslims to convert to Islam; and claims including the “Prophet Muhammad was sent with the sword as a mercy to all worlds” and the Yazidis “are Devil’s worshippers.”

The letter demonstrates the stark divergence in the Muslim world on how to interpret the Qur’?nic verses that call for jihad, especially in its armed form, and that expound the meaning of the Islamic caliphate (Ar. khil?fa). The signees and addressees of this letter represent two distinct groups of interpretation. Both interpretations exist. Both groups are “Muslim.” This is most likely the reason why the letter refers to the leader of ISIS as “doctor,” and its members as “fighters and followers,” with no reference or mention at all of “terrorism” or “terrorists” in the entire document. The reader may get the impression that the letter is addressed to a “prodigal son” among the Muslims. The signing this letter (which took place in the U.S.) reflects a desire of some Muslims to live in peace with non-Muslims.

The writing of this letter in itself, however, is not enough. The statement is ambiguous in crucial areas, which not only weaken its argument, but also question whether it is truly a rigorous and valid refutation of ISIS’s deeds and claims. In what follows, I will focus only on two of them: the concept of jihad and the restoration of the Muslim caliphate. While this letter claims to present the correct version of the Muslim teaching, its imprecise description of important areas makes it subject to different, and sometimes opposite, understandings, leaving the reader, especially the non-Muslim, puzzled regarding correct Islamic teaching.

First, concerning the concept of jihad, the letter reads: “The word ‘jihad’ is an Islamic term that cannot be applied to armed conflict against any other Muslim.” Okay, but what about non-Muslims? Can jihad be applied against them? The letter, though recommending jihad as a form of self-piety or a way to strive against one’s ego, does not specify against whom armed jihad should be applied. This leaves the door open for interpretation.

Moreover, it states that “All Muslims see the great virtue in jihad,” and does not explain what “the jihad against the enemy” really means. In fact, the letter applauds and praises the “intentions” of the members of ISIS, noting, “it is clear that you [Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi] and your fighters are fearless and are ready to sacrifice in your intent for jihad.” The approval sends mixed signals. At the end, the reader doesn’t know what to think. Is armed jihad forbidden only against Muslims? The letter seems to convey so. If this is a true Islamic teaching, then it is seriously damaging to free societies, especially if we consider the non-Muslim groups marauded and slaughtered by ISIS under the banner of jihad.

Second, regarding the restoration (or reestablishment) of the Islamic caliphate, the letter affirms that “There is [an] agreement (ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the [Muslim] Ummah . . . [which] has lacked a caliphate since 1924 CE.” This is a serious point. In their attempt to refute ISIS’s claims regarding the caliphate, the Muslim scholars seem to affirm the ideology of the caliphate with some restrictions. They continue: “a new caliphate requires consensus from Muslims and not just from those in some small corner of the world.” This is puzzling. Does it mean that the restoration of the Muslim caliphate is an obligation upon the Muslim community worldwide these days? Is it only a matter of “consensus”? The letter does not specify. What one may understand of such statements is that ISIS’s caliphate is rejected by some other “Muslims” mainly because there is no “consensus” about it, but the Muslim caliphate and its restoration is a real Muslim commitment, and only needs an agreement among the Muslims in order to reestablish it.

What the signers forget is that, historically speaking, it is difficult even to argue that there was a “consensus” among the Muslims in previous caliphates. On the same day of Muhammad’s death, Muslims disagreed about the caliph, and that is for the most part the reason why we have the Shia–Sunni division among Muslims today. Thus, the Muslim scholars, in their attempt to refute ISIS’s claims, create even more serious questions about Muslim teaching and ideology regarding the restoration of the caliphate.

The ambiguity in this letter reflects the sensitive and critical situation of the Muslim scholars who signed it, and stems probably from at least three reasons: 1) It is obvious that original Muslim texts include statements and stories that could support ISIS’s claims and deeds if interpreted literally, so Muslim scholars try to be both sensitive in choosing their words and selective in their quotations from sacred texts, which results in ambiguity in some cases; 2) Scholars realize that outright denunciation of ISIS’s interpretation is quite difficult, as such interpretations run throughout Muslim history, in addition to the fact that Abu Bakr himself holds a PhD in Islamic Studies; and 3) In the Muslim perception and mindset, the concept of one unified umma (community) obliges Muslims to defend and support their Muslim fellows all the way.

The initiative of these highly acclaimed and respected Muslim scholars is praiseworthy. It speaks loudly that there are many Muslims who want to coexist in peace and mutual respect with non-Muslims. Nevertheless, the world needs more from the Islamic community. Unfortunately, the letter is unclear about crucial beliefs, such as jihad and caliphate, and it does not refute central claims advanced by ISIS. In fact, it raises serious questions about correct Islamic teaching in general. I believe that the leaders of ISIS would most likely find various gaps in this letter, and it would not be too difficult for them to counter its arguments. In all this, non-Muslims worldwide need clearer denunciation of the so-called “Islamic” ideologies that hurt international society by amplifying hatred and discrimination against the non-Muslims. With all due respect to the Muslim scholars who signed this valuable letter, thank you, but it is not enough.

Ayman S. Ibrahim, PhD, is Bill and Connie Jenkins Chair and Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the Senior Fellow for the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam, and a Post-Doctoral candidate of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University.

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